A herd of Abondance cattle ©Pascal Xicluna/Min.Agri.Fr

Pastoralism plays an essential role in the life of mountains. It particularly helps in the maintenance of the landscape, but also in the local economy and tourism, and helps maintain rich prairie biodiversity. But in the face of recent changes brought about by the warming of the atmosphere, will these fragile production systems be able to survive? Specialist prairie and mountain husbandry researchers, based in Clermont-Ferrand and Grenoble in France, in collaboration with socio-economic experts based in Avignon, tackled the question through an applied research project, currently led by a Franco-Italian partnership that encompasses INRAE (the French Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Research). They are attempting to find solutions, with potential changes to practices for these mountainous zones.

The method put in place by the project researchers brings together site-specific climatic and agronomic observations, climate impact modeling on the mountain pasturelands, and socio-economic projections and analyses, the scientists aiming to obtain new data for sustainable mountain pasturelands management. This is partially based on interviews with local actors, taken in an open-dialogue setting, during which questions were raised surrounding new measures of social and economic nature which may be necessary to adapt the mountain pastoral systems to climate changes.

Over the past few years, it has become obvious that mountain and Mediterranean zones are particularly exposed to climate changes. Over the past 120 years, the temperature in the Alps have increased by around 1.6° C, nearly double the global average, and summer precipitation has fallen 30%, leading to an increase in extremes of heat and aridity.

By harnessing modeling tools, the scientists play an important role in the analysis of prairie vulnerability. Climate simulation indicate that the temperature will likely increase in these areas, with an increased risk in droughts. Their projects also predict a lengthening of the plant growth season of about two months in the near future, associated with a reduction in snowpack.

What might be the future of mountain pasturelands?

A reduction in summer resources that influence winter stocks, changes to the composition of mountain flowers which lead to a lesser quality food supply, earlier melting of snowpack which limits access to drinking water for livestock: These are just a few example of the multitude of risk factors that flip upside down the usual markers for shepherds. These illustrate the effects of climate disruptions with which Alpine shepherds must face starting now and which have an impact on pastoral production. The economic results of the fragile systems may be impacted.

By bringing together the different users of the rural alpine world, the project researchers opened a participatory space to bring up ideas, share and act in common. The main findings of these working groups are primarily based on the need to create a new legal framework to go along with changes to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the increasing use of tourism in the alpine economy (considered as an essential key to encourage economic development in the Alps), the adoption of more sustainable pastoral practices in the face of the new climactic paradigm, land conflict management, and finally the issue of predation by wolves. The actors in the area also noted the risk of certain animal and plant species going extinct that are specific to the alpine region, as well as the risk of erosion.

What can be the measures adopted to reduce the vulnerability of alpine climates and to increase their resilience in the face of biodiversity loss and changes to the socio-economic structure of local communities?

The main problem for managers and local actors is the lack of measures at the European level to respond to the impacts of climate change. This is why, through using a long series of meteorological data, the researchers are trying to reproduce the growth of pasturelands with the help of models in order to predict changes based on different future climate scenarios. Based on these results, new methods of managing pasturelands can be invented. The integration of these elements in public policy, whether at the European or regional level, will be determinant for the future of the impacted territories. In this sense, the contribution of satellite detection opens a new method of investigation to produce useful mapping to lead local management strategies.

Even if the project is only about half way completed, it nonetheless allows to anticipate some novel strategies and approaches. The first would be to strengthen scientific partnerships with land managers, particularly to better manage, collect and spread agronomic, climate and socio-economic information and data. The researchers’ work would thus also be to measure in more detail the effect on the environment to better understand the mechanisms of the climate-resources-plant-animal-production chain, and biodiversity impacts.